Clerestory

What Is of Interest

June 10, 2020

Everything interesting exists at a phase transition between order and disorder. I mean that literally.

If you say that something is interesting, what you mean that that thing exists in some balance between familiarity (order) and novelty (disorder). It is neither so ordered that you already knew it, knew all there was to know, nor is it so random that you cannot apprehend it, or integrate it into your worldview. If it were entirely disconnected from anything you knew, it would be impossible to understand what was being said, whereas if it were familiar enough to be entirely known, then it would not be of interest. The interesting exists in the balance, in an interstitial space.

At a phase transition, in other words.

Entropy is a way of measuring unpredictability or uncertainty. If something is entirely new, or if you don’t understand it, then you could also say that entropy is high, because you can’t make good predictions. Anything is possible.

If on the other hand something is entirely familiar, or if you understand it entirely, then you could also say that entropy is low, because you can make good predictions. Possibilities are circumscribed.

What is interesting exists on the boundary of what you know and what you don’t know. It is at a phase transition between familiarity and unfamiliarity. What is interesting extends your existing knowledge into the unknown. In that sense it is always relational, combinatorial. It begins within the boundary of the known, and pushes the borderline further into the unknown, but not so far that it feels unsafe.

If you speak to me about a book, and I’ve never heard of the author, know neither the language, nor the period, nor who he or she is or was, it will be a struggle to hear you out about the book. You’ll need to backtrack until you hit familiar ground, if nothing more than “It’s a novel.” That’s a familiar enough island to get my bearings, though obviously it will be more interesting if you could connect it to the mainland of something I know more intimately.

What we know is never fixed, and varies greatly between people and across time, and of course from topic to topic. The avant-garde pushes this forward, but to apprehend the avant-garde, you need to be fairly well immersed in a subject.

Another way to look at this is in the daily balancing act between novelty and safety. You could also call it a salience filter.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.